At its meeting on July 2, the Putnam County Legislature unexpectedly voted to amend its Code of Ethics, further prohibiting the disclosure of “confidential materials.” The resolution will put a gag on the availability of detailed information—some of which may be vital—that relates to how the committees, and the legislature, arrive at the decisions they make. The vote to pass the resolution was 7-1, with the only Democratic legislator, Nancy Montgomery, being the sole dissenter.
It should be noted that most of the decisions that the Putnam County Legislature makes have to do with money and the exercise of power. When signed into law, this amendment will allow important elements of past, present, and future deliberations and subsequent actions to become even more secretive.
Why such urgency to pass this resolution without full and open dialogue and discussion? Why was this deemed necessary in light of the strict requirements of state and federal open meetings laws? Who are they protecting? Certainly not the public. Is there something important that they are hell-bent on hiding?
The next step before the amendment can be signed into law is that County Executive, MaryEllen Odell must now hold a public hearing. It is expected that numerous citizens of the county will attempt to speak out against this proposal, if allowed. Many residents believe that Republican lawmakers already have too broad an influence and have labeled detrimental evidence as confidential in the past. However, given Odell’s longstanding record of being in lockstep with this Republican-dominated legislature, she is surely going to sign it.
What then? Lawmakers, county officials, and consultants will be able to classify documents as confidential—however indiscriminately—to prevent public disclosure. In addition, anyone intentionally breaching confidentiality will be subject to an ethics inquiry and possible prosecution.
Communications to or from the county law department, legislative counsel or outside counsel will be routinely marked as confidential, and the legislature would need to vote unanimously to release these documents. The only option, then, to break the stalemate of secrecy would be to sue Putnam County in state Supreme Court under the Freedom of Information Act, which would be expensive, laborious and time-consuming.
It has become exceedingly clear that Donald Trump’s Republican Party profits from greed, secrecy, and lying, supporting an administration that continually flies in the face of established protocol and openly breaks laws that once insured a level of civility and respect for government. Will this now become the new idea of “normal” in Putnam County Republican politics, as well?